Why Do Girls Drop Out of School in Delhi's Resettlement Colonies?

While the lack of safety is often cited as the reason for taking young girls out of school, questioning what that 'safety' means reveals patriarchal prejudices.

New Delhi: In a resettlement colony in northwest Delhi, I had a conversation with 54-year-old Abha Devi* about why her family stopped sending her 15-year-old granddaughter Soni* to school. Abha’s family was forcefully evicted from a central Delhi jhuggi-jhopri (JJ) cluster in Delhi in 2006, along with other families, and resettled in a JJ resettlement colony close to the Haryana border. Abha’s 13-year-old grandson continues his schooling in the JJ resettlement colony where they currently live, while Soni dropped out of school at the age of 12. Abha and her family, including Soni, pointed out that it is unsafe for girls to go out in this JJ colony. Women’s safety – or the lack thereof – is a recurrent narrative across Delhi’s resettlement colonies.

According to the Social and Rural Research Institute-India Market Research Bureau 2014 survey data, the percentage share of girls out of school is higher than that of boys in the age bracket of 6-13 years in Delhi as well as in urban India . However, both rates of out-of-school children and their gender disparity are much higher in NCT Delhi compared to urban India on average in the same age bracket. Gender disparity in out-of school children is further sharpened in urban resettlement colonies in Delhi.

Like many large cities in India, the government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) regularly evicts jhuggi settlements from central parts of the city. The GNCTD provides resettlement plots to some of the evicted bastis (slums and JJ clusters) dwellers in the margins of the city within so called ‘planned’ resettlement colonies. Fear and lack of oversight in the nascent resettlement colonies constrain women’s mobility. Young girls and boys experience urban displacement differently, especially in relation to their experiences with schooling after eviction and resettlement. While most boys continue schooling, girls mostly drop out after a certain age.

Existing research reveals three main reasons for high dropout rates for girls in India: higher expectations of domesticity from girls (early marriage, sharing domestic responsibilities with parents and so on); safety concerns (boys teasing and taunting girls travelling to and from school); and infrastructural barriers (such as lack of toilets for girls in schools). Lack of women’s safety emerges as a key reason for the high female dropout rate in Delhi’s resettlement colonies.

What does ‘safety’ really mean?

The lack of women’s safety as a constraint for female education and mobility has become a trope. This is not to suggest that lack of women’s safety is a myth in these resettlement colonies. However, my research, based on interviews with young girls and women, highlighted that there are several other factors at play that impact this idea of ‘safety’.

Returning to Abha’s perception about the lack of women’s safety in the colony, I argue that a nuanced analysis is crucial to understand what really influences decisions around schooling for girls. When I asked Abha about her perception regarding girls’ schooling in the colony, she remarked, “Iss colony mein ladkiyan school jake boyfriend banati hain aur fir unke saath bhaag jati hain (In this colony, girls go to school, engage in romantic relationships with boys and then run away with them).” Abha’s daughter-in-law added, “That (romantic relationships) is what the boys want, but some shameless girls also engage in illicit relations with the boys in school without thinking about their fathers’ honour and reputation.”

Sixteen-year-old Neha* told me that her classmate, Ravi*, used to tease and physically harass her regularly. After much hesitation, she told her parents what was happening. Her father turned on her, saying, “You must have done something wrong to incite his attention”. He asked her to “lower her gaze (aankhein nichi rakhna)” when commuting to and from school, and while there. She was taken out of school at the age of 14, when Ravi and a few other boys molested her on her way back from school. Neha said that her family did not want to make a big deal of the incident because it involves their honour and they (falsely) believed that Neha had an affair with Ravi. She now stays at home and stitches clothes for a multinational corporation that hires home-based labour.

Fatima*, 45, considers herself fortunate that her youngest daughter Ruksana* recently got married. Ruksana is 16 and dropped out of school at 12. Fatima, a resident of a JJ resettlement colony in Delhi, has three daughters, who are all married now, and a 14-year-old son who irregularly attends school. “Home is the best place for girls…. many young boys and unemployed men are alcoholics and take their frustrations out on girls by teasing and abusing them outside, in the alleys,” said Fatima. Although domestic abuse of women is common in the colony, Fatima (like many other women) finds it ‘normal.’

Saying that it is only women’s safety concerns that causes girls to drop out of school camouflages a deep-rooted patriarchal psyche that could be the actual driver. ‘Ghar (home)’ or ‘inside’ is seen as the ideal place for girls. While gender-based violence ‘inside’ the home is acceptable, lack of women’s safety ‘outside’ the home is a threat.

What we witness in the resettlement colonies in Delhi – and in many other parts of the country (for example, the case of residents in girls’ hostels in the University of Delhi and their campaign against it, Pinjra Tod) – is a culture of caging girls and women while claiming it is for their benefit. These girls are held guilty of behaving ‘inappropriately’ and crushing their families’ ‘honour’ if they engage in ‘illicit’ relationships with boys in school, while the involvement of boys is viewed as normal. The boys are still allowed to both study and go wherever they please, while the girls pay for their actions.

Early marriage for girls is considered to be a panacea for violence, which in resettlement colonies is driving girls to drop out of school.

Why flagship programmes fail

Measures aiming at women’s empowerment and safety have gained impetus after the disbursal of Nirbhaya funds by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2016. However, the ground reality belies policy goals, raising questions about the implementation and effectiveness of these measures. The Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) planned to run one-stop centres in every district in the NCT of Delhi to provide legal, psychological and other facilities to girls and women below 18 years of age against gender-based violence under the Nirbhaya funds. The plan to deploy sakhis (volunteers) in 11 one-stop centres across Delhi has not been accomplished, while the rates of gender-based violence continue to rise. The Sabla Scheme for holistic development of adolescent girls in the age-group of 11-18 years is another macro-level programme – but it is not effective in the urban resettlement colonies in Delhi. The 24-hour emergency helpline service also experienced a slump.

Flagship programmes such as the one-stop centres scheme focus on community participation and require the victims to reach out to various agencies. Such programmes are likely to fail if the victims and their families are reluctant to report cases of violence. During focus group discussions with young girls and women in selected resettlement colonies in Delhi, I learned that they are often reluctant to report incidences of gender-based violence and instead choose to stay at home.

Fifteen-year-old Renu* remarked, “How will I reach out to the volunteers in the one-stop centres when I never go out of my home? My parents do not even allow me to go to the nearest park.” Alcoholic men occupy parks in the colony and engage in gambling.

Neha thinks her parents would not allow her to report the incidences of violence she had faced to the police or any volunteers to preserve their “honour”, which they think is important at least until their daughter is married off. Awarenes programmes are required to change parental perceptions of gender-based violence in urban resettlement colonies.

The way forward

Although better implementation of existing programmes for women’s empowerment is a challenge, it is not sufficient to ensure a gender-sensitive environment. Flagship programmes do not take into account ground-level realities. Recognising and attacking context-specific patriarchal norms and practices should be the first step. Community mobilisation is the real challenge for the success of programme goals.

Grassroots-level organisations such as Jagori initiated a more nuanced approach to combat gender-based violence in selected resettlement colonies in Delhi. Their plan includes training a cadre of youth leaders – both boys and girls –to “explore and understand issues of ending violence, building resistance and confidence”.

Research-based action and understanding deep-rooted and context-specific problems in each resettlement colony and planning accordingly is crucial for successful outcomes. Action-based research, acknowledging the residents of the resettlement colonies as participants in the research and planning process as well as bridging gaps among residents, community leaders, volunteers, researchers and planners is equally important. Research-based action going hand in hand with action-based research is the need of the hour.

*All names have been changed.

Debangana Bose is a doctoral student at the Department of Geography at the Ohio State University.

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